Cleansed and Purified: A Moroccan Hammam Experience

islam morocco ritual

This article is from the September 20th, 2023 edition of the Exploration Society Journal.

Emily Six's love for the unreached and unengaged led her to move to Salt Lake City, Utah, and join a church plant in 2015. There, she met her husband Philip, and led worship and community groups alongside him for several years. In March 2023, Emily and Philip embarked on a "Sabbath year" to travel the world and explore new cultures while continuing to work remotely and spread the light of Christ. Emily is a communications consultant with a BA in Anthropology and Psychology from Texas A&M University.

When is the last time you let a stranger bathe you? What if your eternity depended on it?

This past weekend, my husband and I visited Marrakech, Morocco. While we were there, we adventured into a hammam, a public bathhouse that has traditionally served Arab-Muslim populations as a place to perform ritual cleansing.

In a Moroccan hammam, visitors of the same gender disrobe (except for a loincloth or other modesty garment) and progress together through a series of three rooms, ranging from cold to warm. Guests are lathered, by each other or an attendant, with black olive soap, scrubbed with an abrasive, exfoliating mitt, then rinsed with cold water. Neighbors, families, and friends perform the cleansing together; it is a very social and community-oriented event.

Traditionally, the cleansing is both physical and spiritual, taking place on Thursday or Friday before the Holy Prayers. As layers of the skin are scrubbed away, so are the sins of the individual and all of her bad deeds. The hammam is also a type of celebration or rite of passage. At the end of the hammam, the body is pure, sinless, and acceptable before God.

As an anthropologist, I was eager to experience a public hammam. My husband, on the other hand, was absolutely not. We compromised and booked a private hammam where we went through the treatments together and enjoyed a massage and facial afterward.

We had two female attendants assisting us, issuing commands to stand up, flip over, sit down. They scrubbed our bodies with surprising force, even though I’m confident we received the tourist version of the notoriously painful-yet-wonderful pressure.

In Western society, where physical intimacy is inherently sexualized, the best comparison I can find is that of a doctor’s appointment. There’s a certain level of professionalism and clinical detachment that pre-empted any awkwardness or insecurity, even for my very reserved and private husband.

The experience was vulnerable but not violating; intimate but not intrusive; exposing but not exploitative. Watching the clumps of dead skin (so much dead skin!) float down the drain felt renewing and satisfying.

Dating back to the Roman civilization that spread across North Africa since the first century, the Moroccan hammam is undoubtedly reminiscent of Roman baths. The ruins of the oldest known hammam in Morocco are from the late 8th century, and the shift from Roman bath to hammam is a bit fuzzy.

We don’t have adequate records to fully understand the adoption of hammams in Arab-Muslim culture. Indeed, the very nature of public bathing in hammams is in direct conflict with the modesty of Islam. One theory suggests that the bathhouses were first introduced for personal hygiene, and then quickly adapted to suit Muslim purification rituals. By the tenth century, regardless of their original intent, hammams occupied an important place in the Arab-Muslim medina architecture alongside the mosque, the oven, the Quranic school, the fountains, the ramparts, and the markets.

In the traditional context, the hammam provides bodily and spiritual purification–offering a place to perform the necessary ablutions before prayer. Islam requires two different types of bodily cleansing, depending on a set of defined circumstances: wudu and ghusl.

Wudu is a partial cleansing of the face, arms, head, and feet. Ghusl is a full body cleansing required for specified events, such as after giving birth. Ablutions are about more than bodily cleanliness; when performed correctly, they offer purification from sin.

An excerpt from Shahih Muslim, Book 2 (an Islamic scripture, second to the Qur’an), explains the weight and importance of performing ablutions correctly:

“...A person performed ablution and left a small part equal to the space of a nail unwashed. The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) saw that and said: Go back and perform ablution well. He then went back, performed ablution well, and offered the prayer.

When a [Muslim] washes his face (in course of ablution), every sin he contemplated with his eyes will be washed away from his face along with water; when he washes his hands, every sin they wrought will be effaced from his hands with the water; and when he washes his feet, every sin towards which his feet have walked will be washed away with the water with the result that he comes out pure from all sins.

The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: He who performed ablution well, his sins would come out from his body, even coming out from under his nails.”

Today, the hammam remains an important part of Moroccan culture. Even though the rise of indoor plumbing enabled private purification, hammams remain culturally significant and serve as a tourist attraction. For some, they still provide the required conditions for ablution, but for most they are a rite of passage and a bonding experience. For tourists like us, they’re a spa treatment that embraces elements from the traditional hammams.

Our entire experience took about two and a half hours. In between lathering, scrubbing, soaking, and rinsing, there was plenty of time to relax and think. I spent this time reflecting on my own purification from sin in contrast to ritualistic ablutions. At some point, the old hymn “Redeemeed–How I Love to Proclaim It” came to mind, resurfaced from a childhood spent in the pews of Murvaul Missionary Baptist Church in East Texas.

Even as I appreciated the exfoliating, cleansing, rehydrating skin treatment, I was acutely thankful that my eternity is not connected to my own ability to cleanse myself–or have an attendant cleanse me. I have been “redeemed by the blood of the Lamb,” and “His child and forever I am.”

Muslim ablutions are based on a verse in the Qur’an that is interpreted literally. Qur'an 2:222 says "For God loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean."

In contrast, Romans 5:8 assures us that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We were loved before we were clean, and it is that love and sacrifice that cleanses us (Hebrews 7:27, 1 John 3:2-3). The life, death, and resurrection of Christ fulfilled the law; one sacrifice, one time, for all. I can pray and approach the throne with confidence, because it is not my own works that justify me before God–it is the perfect work of Christ.

As Philip and I basked in our post-scrub glow and sipped on frothy mint tea, I asked the manager of our hammam for his perspective. He grew up in the villages of Morocco and said several homes still have personal hammams where the family bathes together. For him, it is a valued tradition and cultural observance. There is less emphasis on ablution, but he pointed out that there is “no other type of clean quite like after visiting the hammam.”

I’m inclined to agree. It’s not hard to feel like a new creation when the top few layers of your skin have been entirely scrubbed away. However, as we left the hammam and walked into the hot, dusty, desert city, we were quickly coated again with a layer of dirt and sweat. In the days since, the smell has faded and our skin has dried, and I am thankful that my own salvation is more permanent than a spa treatment.


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